Vayera: On interrupting worship to honor the stranger


Genesis 18:1-22:24

II Kings 4:1-37

The first verse of this week's reading provides a terse, unemotional description of a high point in Abraham's life: "God appeared to him [Abraham] at the Oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day" (Gen. 18:1). Religious personalities throughout history have prayed, meditated and fasted, hoping to experience such a moment of direct contact with the awesome Source of all being; and, at the door of Abraham's tent, it happens: "God appeared to him." Just then, at that long-awaited moment of religious ecstasy, he is distracted by the sight of three men standing opposite him.

Abraham reacts to the three men at once. Abandoning his own religious experience for the care of strangers, he rushes out to welcome them, saying, "My lords, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not move past your servant. Let a little water be taken, and wash your feet, and rest here under the tree, and I will take a loaf of bread and you will feast your heart. Then you will move on…" (Gen. 18:3-5). The way I have interpreted Abraham's speech, he breaks off his communion with God without so much as a word.

There is another way to understand the speech. Talmudic sage Rabbi Yehudah, speaking in the name of his teacher, Rav (Shabbat 127a), proposes that Abraham address his first sentence not to the men, but to God. He reads the sentence: "My Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not move past your servant" (Gen. 18:3). Abraham politely takes his leave, praying that God will remain accessible to him. Only then does he begin speaking with the men, offering them his hospitality, with the words: "Let a little water be taken, and wash your feet…" (18:4).

The two interpretations differ on how to understand Abraham's first word, which either means "my Lord," referring to God, or "my lords," referring to the men. The Masoretic note sides with Rav. It simply states "holy," meaning that the scribe who writes this word must treat it as a divine appellation.

Whether he says farewell or not, Abraham abandons his profound discourse with the divine presence in order to fetch a meal for some strangers. Apparently, he lets his social responsibilities get in the way of his religious needs; he follows customary manners with strangers, and not his own bliss. Has he chosen wisely?

Rabbi Yehudah said that his teacher, Rav, thought so. He used Abraham's behavior to demonstrate that "Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the divine presence" (Shabbat 127a). The Creator, like a loving parent, enjoys moments when the children respect each other even more than when they respect their parent.

Perhaps when Rav puts welcoming guests over one's own spiritual needs, he means especially needy guests. If so, perhaps he has set the religious obligation to care for the poor above personal spiritual needs. However, the story does not indicate that the three men appeared especially needy to Abraham. If Rav indeed means any sort of guests, as he seems to, then he sets even customary manners over spiritual needs. Reading Rav, I feel the temptation to indulge in fantasies about the worldly wisdom of Judaism. I do not know where to stop this fantasy. At any precious moment of meditative contact with the divine, one could go out and round up a few guests. Maybe one should. Follow the logic a step further, and one recommends that synagogues emphasize social action, and even social events, over prayer.

The Jewish tradition, naturally, contains a counterweight to Rav's position. The Mishnah asserts that one who recites the central prayer, the Amidah, ought not interrupt to respond to a greeting, and certainly not to initiate a greeting. Even if a king happens past as one prays, one should not interrupt to greet him (Brakhot 5:1). Apparently, according to this ruling, at some times one's own prayers take precedence over welcoming others. One can, and should, ignore basic courtesy in order to pray without interruption. Judaism, as exemplified by this source, appears quite spiritual, not so worldly. Following this source, I should recommend that the synagogue social action committee and social events committee must not interfere with the prayers.

Both sources belong to the authentic Jewish tradition. Rav, who demands that we give precedence to welcoming guests, and the Mishnah, which demands that we show proper respect for the importance of our dialogue with the Creator, both teach us something necessary about how to evaluate our behavior. And we make our life decisions in the tension between these two apparently contradictory texts.